Art of War, The: Thriller Starring Wesley Snipes

In the pretentiously titled film, The Art of War, a B-level international thriller sloppily brought to the screen by Morgan Creek and Elie Samaha’s production company, Wesley Snipes plays an American agent who gets involved in the emerging trade relations between China and the Western world, with a shaky U.N. placed right in the midst of the diplomatic intrigues.

It’s a tribute to Snipes’ charismatic presence that, despite Christian Duguay’s messy direction and Wayne Beach and Simon Davis Barry’s lopsided script, his performance rises above the mediocrity, giving the pic the semblance of an actioner with three or four highly pleasing chase scenes. Warners’ late summer release will open O.K. due to support from black patrons and genre’s aficionados–it’s been a while since Hollywood’s last conspiracy actioner–but a quick theatrical playoff is expected once reviews and not a particularly enticing word-of-mouth kick in.

Almost every element in Art of War is slightly off, beginning with the timing of its release: Yarn is set on the eve of the new Millennium. In a particularly cacophonous opening, a colorfully decadent party in Hong Kong, which almost dwarfs the dialogue, we learn that China is about to sign a trade treaty and hence begin a new exciting era after a long isolationist history.

Wu (James Hong), the Chinese U.N. Ambassador, seemingly assisted by David Chan (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa), a successful Chinese entrepreneur, have been working hard to promote the pact with U.N. Secretary General Thomas (Donald Sutherland). What sets off a bizarre, unpredictable chain of events is the creepy sight of a group of murdered Chinese refugees, found in a container in the N.Y. harbor by agent Cappella (Maury Chaykin).

An important assembly meeting, with speeches translated by U.N. employee Julia (Marie Matiko) begins, but Wu is shockingly assassinated in the midst of his delivery. Neil Shaw (Snipes), working close with his supervisor, Eleanor Hooks (Anne Archer), an ambitious FBI agent, chases the killer in a thrilling sequence, but, as is the norm in such stories, he’s soon arrested by the police as prime suspect.

This intriguing set-up occurs in the first reel, which, regrettably, is followed by a lengthy and disjointed espionage-conspiracy tale, undermined by awkward cutting between action and dialogue scenes, some of which try to explain the title. “The Art of War” is an ancient handbook by Sun Tsu, a powerful Asian general who believed that wars can be won without ever having to actually fight. As a result of these problems, actioner assumes the shape of a Disney roller coaster ride that’s interrupted so many times that the joy is almost killed.

It’s not that the yarn lacks story or characters–it has plenty of both. For a while, just figuring out the tangled, ever-changing relationships and coalitions provides some fun. Working with an elite team of covert agents who’re so deeply classified they don’t “officially exist,” Shaw is a potentially exciting action hero: A Buddhist, which colors his outlook on the world, and a martial arts expert, with plenty of opportunities to demonstrate both his mental acuity and physical prowess.

Shaw is contrasted with Bly (Michael Biehn), the team’s intense but more playful partner, who relates to his risky job as a game. Knowing that the government perceives them as necessary weapons–rather than humans with feelings–the duo execute their tasks while ignoring the dubious reasoning and appalling machinations that define international politics.

Both men report to Hooks, the U.N.’s iron-fisted chief of security, who works closely with the Secretary General. It’s Hooks who’s assigned to deliver some preposterous speeches about strategy, manipulation and control as they apply to the business and politics. A smarter script would have relied less on expository speeches and make much more of the notion that in American capitalism there’s not much difference between the two worlds.

Following generic conventions, yarn arranges for Shaw to team up with a beautiful girl, Julia (Marie Matiko). Ultimately, Julia is the only person he can really trust and also the one person who may be holding the key to a global conspiracy of cataclysmic proportions that threatens the very existence of the U.N. No contempo thriller-actioner can ignore high-tech and this pic is no exception. Indeed, soon all the protagonists are after a disk that, played in slo-mo, reveals discriminatory evidence about the circumstances in which Wu was murdered while Chan was seated next to him.

Like any other summer blockbuster, Art of War has its fair share of gun-blazing mayhem and lurid violence. Artistically, pic occupies the uncomfortable position of being placed in the middle between John Woo’s stylishly extravagant actioners on the one hand and Jerry Brookheimer’s more conventional fare on the other. In its messy structure and insistently chaotic loud score, pic is closer to the latter, yet some sequences approximate the cool elegance of the more impressive Hong Kong actioners.

Montreal-based Duguay, who previously directed the efficient thriller The Assignment but also the compromised sci-fi Screamers, gives the film an erratic tempo, with several crucial sequences coming out of the blue. But brisk pacing can conceal only up to a point helmer’s crude approach, writing flaws, and especially choppy editing. Despite some effectively rousing set-pieces, particularly those set in the long corridors of the U.N. building, ultimately, Art of War is much less than the sum total of its parts.

A talented ensemble elevates the actioner at least a notch or two above the material’s level. Snipes, also credited as one of the exec-producers, is most credibly and appealingly cast as the “invisible” hero, in a part that enables him to show dramatic acting as well as martial arts skills. It’s nice to see Archer, for years typecast as the long-suffering wife, play a different, tougher role. In the small, underdeveloped part of a bewildered U.N. Secretary General, the versatile Sutherland commands attention, and so does Canadian character thesp Chaykin, playing the only role that contains some humor, an element that’s otherwise missing from the proceedings.

Credits

MPAA Rating: R.
Running time: 117 minutes

A Warner release of a Morgan Creek, Franchise Pictures, and Amen Films presentation of a Filmline Interantional production.
Produced by Nicolas Clermont.
Executive producers, Elie Samaha, Dan Halsted, Wesley Snipes.
Co-producer, Richard Lalonde.
Directed by Christian Duguay.
Screenplay, Wayne Beach and Simon Davis Barry, based on a story by Beach.
Camera (DeLuxe, wide screen), Pierre Gill. Editor, Michel Arcand.
Music, Norman Corbeil.
Music supervisior, David Franco.
Production design, Anne Pritchard.
Sound (Dolby/SDDS), Donald Cohen.
Special effects coordinator.

Cast

Neil Shaw………..Wesley Snipes
Eleanor Hooks………Anne Archer
Capella………….Maury Chaykin
David Chan…Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa
Douglas Thomas..Donald Sutherland
Bly……………..Michael Biehn
Julia…………….Marie Matiko
Novak………..Liliana Kmorowska
Ambassador Wu……….James Hong